TALKING TO PEDESTRIAN MAGAZINE
an interview with alexander wolfe
Alexander Wolfe likes to walk around and talk to people. He likes it so much that earlier this year he founded Pedestrian, a bi-monthly magazine devoted to his favorite activity. Originally from Iowa and a sculptor by training, he made his way (by plane, we think) to New York by way of Chicago, where he attended the Art Institute, and Detroit, where he lived after graduation. Alex recently took a break from working on Pedestrian’s third issue to talk to Newest York about the project.
I know you're from Des Moines originally. I'm curious what pedestrian life is like there.
I'm actually from a suburb of Des Moines. I grew up like 10 minutes outside of the city, in the town of Grimes, which was a town of like 6,000 people. We would just ride our bikes. It's not even a city—it's a town. There wasn't really a lot of pedestrian life, but there was the grocery store in town. You go to the grocery store, you see everybody you know pretty much. There was really no getting around people you didn't want to see. My high school teachers lived in the town, so you go to the grocery store and it's like, oh, there's my math teacher. Kids from high school that I didn't want to see… You'd always see them.
I went back to Iowa two years ago. I hadn't been back in Grimes in a while. My parents had moved to Des Moines proper. Grimes is super developed now and suburban and they're building all of these new homes. Of course, I went to the grocery store and I saw all of those people. That's kind of the beauty of it. I knew I could potentially run into some people I didn't want to see, but I was like, you know what, let's get the experience. And of course nothing's changed. Not a single thing.
Can you talk a little bit about your own experience as a pedestrian?
I've always been a walker. The magazine's not about me, necessarily, but in terms of my art practice, I studied sculpture. I was always looking at things in terms of “what's my practice?” The longer I made art, I started feeling like, OK, I'm in a studio and making these sculptures. It's not really about these objects for me at all—it's about interactions with people.
In Chicago, I was doing a lot of walking. I lived in this neighborhood called Logan Square and I would often find myself up and down Milwaukee Avenue, just at parties or openings. Along the way, you know, you just start noticing stuff—the storefronts, people you see. You notice patterns. You see the same guy, or even people on their daily routines. You just see it. And I don't know, I guess I just found interest in that and I didn't know what to do with it. I knew I liked it. I was getting frustrated with art making.
I knew there were these things I liked to do, but I didn't really know how to address them. I remember I had to talk in front of one of my classes and I said something along the lines of, “Sometimes I'd rather run errands than make art.” That always kind of stuck with me. I don't even know if I really enjoyed making the art—I've always enjoyed going to the thrift store to find some junk to use for a sculpture, running these errands. I knew in the back of my mind, in Chicago, that was what I really enjoyed, but I was like, what do you do with that? How do you even build a practice out of that?
My senior year of college I started this business. It was kind of like a pseudo business, selling teapots. It's super vague on my website, because it looks like it's a business-business, but it's actually like an alias. I was selling these teapots, writing these newsletters that were about my role in this studio. The premise was that I gave up my position as an artist, and became studio manager of this teapot company, Dog Shoppe, selling teapots but also selling my friends' stuff. In doing that I was going to post office a lot, packaging the teapots. I used to go to post office and do everything there, like pack my stuff, and it was like this huge production. So when I would go to the post office, people would talk to me. And I would always tell myself: “I really enjoy going to the post office and talking to people. I like how this project gives me reason to talk to people.” I have to respond to something. I have to fill orders. I have to contact people for whatever they're trying to sell. I'd sell my friends' zines and things.
What was your impression of New York when you got here?
I mean, I liked it. I always liked it. New York is very mythologized. I'm coming from Chicago where there's kind of this inferiority complex. It's like, “Everyone moves to New York. Screw New York.” I didn't want to come here for a long time. It's super expensive, I thought there's no way I could live here. I moved here to try to get into more design work because I didn't study it. I had a friend Laurel Schwulst who got me an internship at this design studio, Linked by Air. I was doing this mixture of design and art handling, and all the posters for DJs I'd done in Detroit were leading to more work. I started working for a record label and doing design work.
I got this residency through 8-Ball zines. I wasn’t really a zine-maker, but I was interested in distribution. I worked on a project of these napkins from art collectors' homes that a friend of mine in Chicago had given me while I was art-handling—he'd been in art-handling for like 20 years, going to these people's homes and finding these napkins in their bathrooms that had their last initials monogrammed on them. These are just things that you would wash your hands with. They're made of paper. They're not cloth. You throw them away. We would see them in everybody's homes.
He gave them to me in this really shitty box he made, and I published this book of them through the 8-Ball residency. I think that kind of interaction I had with him helped fuel... It was the same as going to the post office. It was like, “This interaction I'm having with this person is very fulfilling.”
Where did the idea for Pedestrian come from?
I was living in Ridgewood and I made friends with this guy Curtis Merkel. He's 83 years old, probably 84 by now. He runs a bookstore in Ridgewood. I just popped in there one day and we started talking. I've always been interested in history so I was curious about Ridgewood. I had kind of fallen in love with the neighborhood, and he was talking to me, and I think through these conversations I realized that I was feeling very dissatisfied. I really don't know how to say this, but to say it bluntly, I just didn't really want to be doing art shit anymore—whatever that means. And I knew that Curtis was just a regular old dude and he had a lot to say, and I thought, okay, I want to interview this guy. I want to publish what he has to say. Something about that, it all clicked. It gave me a reason to design something every two months. I don't like being in a studio all the time; I really can't do that hermetic practice. It gave me a reason to leave. Like the musicians at the opening for the second issue, Ebrima and Salieu, I met them on the train. And they actually played the first issue opening too.
What do you hope people will walk away from an issue with?
There's just a lot going on around us that’s often overlooked. I think especially now in city life, we do choose not to speak to each other. There are such different little bubbles between different people. It's something I wanted to address for my own life, and I wanted to share it with people. In the newest issue, I'm talking to a lot of hot dog cart vendors. They're on the street every day for 25 years. What's that like?
It just seems like something that I don't get a lot of. Even with Curtis the bookstore owner. He's 83 years old. I'm only 26, but I'm meeting with him and having these conversations. I don't have a lot of older people in my life, you know? Ebrima and Salieu, they're from Gambia. They perform on the subway, that's how they make their living. They’re artists—they moved to New York for the same reasons I moved here. They wanted more opportunities and they play these instruments and they want to get better.
Does being in New York shape your view or the way you approach the project?
I don't know if Pedestrian could exist anywhere else for me right now. I think New York's a perfect city to walk around. For the previous issues I wasn't interviewing people candidly; it was more about developing these relationships over months and then being like, “Hey, I have this project that I haven't told you about. Can I interview you?” But this third issue I've just been walking around the city finding people, talking to them, getting shut down a lot and just letting that go.
Do you bring copies of the magazine?
I used to walk around with a folder, and then I was like screw this, who cares. This [a beaten-up copy of the second issue he takes out of his bag] is the copy I walk around with. That's literally the one I always bring with me, and I open it up. I don't have a business card. It's all there.
I've been talking to a lot of vendors. I walk up with this folded piece of paper in my hand and I've had some guys be like, “What's that?” Because tickets are a big deal. They get a lot of tickets, so I don't know if they thought I was some undercover inspector. They're like, “Why do you want a photo? What's this in your hand? Why do you want to talk to me?”
This is an awful question, but how do you see the difference between your approach and something like Humans of New York?
I’m not saying he's not invested in them, but I'm not trying to suck out the saddest part of your life and post it to like a million people. I just want to know who you are, what you do. What’s it like to sell hot dogs on the street for 20 years?
I've been thinking about this a lot too, how to stay away from that territory. It's very clickbait-y and it is so reliant on social media, whereas me, I'm printing it. I just think with Pedestrian it's a little bit more about developing networks. These people who I talk to, I keep in touch with them, like Salieu and Ebrima. I go and see them play a lot. Ebrima calls me on the phone at like 7 a.m. He's my alarm clock sometimes. He just wants to shoot the shit.